JOHANNESBURG – Inside a Catholic church that once served as a major rallying point for anti-apartheid activists, the image of a gray-suited Nelson Mandela appears in a stained-glass window that also features angels and the cross.
Worshippers prayed Sunday for the hospitalized 94-year-old former president, who remains almost a secular saint and a father figure to many in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that has Africa’s top economy.
Mandela’s admission to the hospital this weekend for unspecified medical tests sparked screaming newspaper headlines and ripples of fear in the public that the frail leader is fading further away.
And as his African National Congress political party stands ready to pick its leader who likely will be the nation’s next president, some believe governing party politicians have abandoned Mandela’s integrity and magnanimity in a seemingly unending string of corruption scandals. That leaves many wondering who can lead the country the way the ailing Mandela once did.
When you have someone that’s willing to lead by example like he did, it makes things easier for people to follow, said Thabile Manana, who worshipped Sunday at Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church. Lately, the examples are not so nice. It’s hard. I’m scared for the country.
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting racist white rule, became South Africa’s first black president in 1994 and served one five-year term. The Nobel laureate later retired from public life to live in his remote village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape area, and last made a public appearance when his country hosted the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.
On Saturday, the office of President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela had been admitted to a Pretoria hospital for medical tests and care that was consistent for his age. Zuma visited Mandela on Sunday morning at the hospital and found the former leader to be comfortable and in good care, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement. Maharaj offered no other details about Mandela, nor what medical tests he had undergone since entering the hospital.
Mandela’s hospitalization quickly dominated news coverage in South Africa, where most have been focused on the upcoming ANC national convention this month in Mangaung. There, the party that has governed South Africa since Mandela’s election will pick either pick a new leader or re-elect Zuma to helm the organization. Becoming leader of the ANC means a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president in post-apartheid South Africa.
Zuma, 70, faces increasing criticism as the nation’s poor blacks, who believed the end of apartheid would bring economic prosperity, face the same poverty as before while politicians and the elite get richer. Meanwhile the economy continues to struggle amid slow growth and the aftermath of violent unrest in the country’s mining industry.
Zuma also faces criticism over millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made at his private homestead. But that’s merely the tip of the corruption allegations swirling around the party, which critics say is increasingly tarnished. Textbooks have gone undelivered to rural schools, while local ANC officials have been arrested and convicted of corruption charges. Others have been attacked or killed in politically tinged violence as the party’s convention draws closer.
It’s becoming corrupt every day ... and it’s growing worse, said Sidney Matlana, a worshipper at Regina Mundi. Things are getting worse than it was before.